Christopher Basil "Kit" Cunningham IC, MBE[note 1] (18 November 1931 – 12 December 2010) was a British priest. For almost 30 years, as the rector of St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, Cunningham was one of London’s best-known Roman Catholic parish priests. His death, in 2010, was widely reported in the media. In 2011 it became publicly known that he had been involved in sexual abuse at a school in Tanzania in the 1960s.
Teaching career and sexual abuse
During the 1960s, Cunningham was stationed at St Michael's Catholic Boarding School in Soni, Tanzania. While there he and other Rosminian priests perpetrated sexual abuse that made this school, according to one pupil, "a loveless, violent and sad hellhole". Other pupils recall being photographed naked, hauled out of bed at night to have their genitals fondled and other sexual abuse.
Although Cunningham's abuse was known about by the Rosminian order before his death in 2010, it was covered up and knowledge of it only emerged publicly in 2011 in the BBC documentary Abused: Breaking the silence. The order are resisting paying compensation to the abuse victims.
Views on marriage
Cunningham had liberal views on marriage. He made St Etheldreda's a popular place for weddings – partly because of its historic beauty, but also because his relaxed approach to marriage preparation, devoid of any embarrassing discussions about the couple's current domestic arrangements; the Catholic Church's canon law stipulates that cohabiting couples must separate for six months and confess before they are married. He was also willing to bless the second marriages of divorcees, against Church teaching. For the last 30 years of his life, Cunningham had a female companion, Jenny Floyd, until her death in 2006.
Mission to journalists
Cunningham had a particular mission to journalists. As Fleet Street is only 10 minutes walk from St Etheldreda's, journalists could attend midday Masses and even have time for a drink in Ye Old Mitre, a pub next door. Masses were said in honour of The Keys, the Catholic writers' guild. On these occasions Mass was followed by supper with a generous supply of alcohol, before the guild's prayer of St Francis de Sales (the patron saint of journalists) was said. There were, however, feuds. Cunningham was said to have remarked of one newspaper executive: "The only way I’m allowing him back here is if he comes crawling into the confession box."
Cunningham was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II, advised by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, in the 1998 New Year Honours. Following correspondence with some of his sexual abuse victims, shortly before Cunningham's death, the insignia of this honour was returned to the Queen. Some accounts allege that it was returned by Cunningham himself to Buckingham Palace, others that it was returned by mail on his behalf to St James's Palace by the Revd Fr David Myers, Provincial Superior of the Rosminians in the United Kingdom, following Cunningham's admission of guilt. Myers himself states that Cunningham returned the insignia himself. Despite returning the insignia, Cunningham remained a member of the order until his death. Honours are bestowed by the monarchs and can be revoked only by them; they cannot formally be renounced. Honours are only revoked when the Forfeiture Committee submits a recommendation to the monarch through the prime minister. The monarch directs that the appointment be cancelled and annulled and that the person's name be erased from the register of the order and a notice is published in the London Gazette. Honours are normally forfeited when a person is convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to imprisonment for more than three months or is found guilty by a professional or regulatory body. Cunningham was never convicted of a criminal offence despite his admission of guilt.
Details of Cunningham's sexual abuse were featured in a BBC documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, which was broadcast on 21 June 2011. The programme also featured interviews with several of his victims. The abuse was not mentioned in the obituaries published following his death.
- Cunningham returned his MBE insignia to Buckingham Palace shortly before his death but was not formally removed from membership of the Order of the British Empire.
- "Obituary". London: The Telegraph. 13 December 2010.
- "Ex-pupils in legal bid 'after years of abuse'". Leicester Mercury. 21 June 2011.
- Christopher Lamb, "Rosminians sued by former pupils abused by priests", The Tablet (18 June 1011), p32
- "The party-loving priest who turned out to be a sexual predator". The Times. 22 June 2011.
- "Former pupils allege widespread abuse". Cath News. 22 June 2011.
- "The Rosminian order must face up to its past: what happened in Tanzania was a moral catastrophe". The Catholic Herald. 22 June 2011.
- Stanford, Peter (19 June 2011). "He was my priest and my friend. Then I found out he was a paedophile". London: The Guardian.
- "Abused: Breaking the Silence". BBC. 20 June 2011.
- Damian Thompson (21 June 2011). ""Fr Kit Cunningham's paedophile past: heads should roll after the Rosminian order's disgraceful cover-up"". London: The Telegraph.
- ""Why didn’t the Rosminian order tell us the truth about Fr Kit?"". Catholic Herald. 20 June 2011.
- "Celebrity priest was ‘monster’ child abuser - Catholic priest who quietly resigned his MBE was protected from public outing by his order despite routinely abusing boys as young as seven". The Times. 19 June 2011.
- "Why did the Rosminians cover up Fr Kit's past?". CathNews. 22 June 2011.
- "Canadian leads abuse lawsuit against Catholic priests". Vancouver Sun. 24 June 2011.
- "The men abused by Rosminians deserve compensation". The Catholic Herald. 22 June 2011.
- "Former 1950s students to sue Catholic order over abuse". BBC. 22 June 2011.
- Damian Thompson (23 June 2011). "Rosminian sex abuse scandal: order shamed by BBC into issuing wretchedly inadequate apology". London: The Telegraph.
- "Rosminian order admits ‘inadequate’ response to abuse". The Catholic Herald. 22 June 2011.
- "Devastation and disbelief when abuse case hits close to home". The Irish Independent. 20 June 2011.
- "Statement from Fr David Myers", Accessed 1 July 2011
- "Honours Forfeiture Committee", Directgov, Accessed 1 July 2011
- James Kirkup, "Sir Fred Goodwin: How an honour can be removed", The Telegraph (28 February 2009), Accessed 1 July 2011
- Crace, John (21 June 2011). "TV review: Abused: Breaking the Silence". London: The Guardian.
- Harvey, Chris (22 June 2011). "TV review: Abused: Breaking the Silence". London: The Telegraph.
- "TV review: Abused: Breaking the Silence". The Times. 22 June 2011.